The future of politics meets the past

The rise in xenophobic and racist politics is an untimely reminder of the darkest era in European history

First no one gave him a chance of winning the elections. Once elected, the belief was that being in power would soften him. And when he took office no one doubted that his powerful adversaries would put a stop to his delusions. But time went by, and the rantings that had before filled his disciples with enthusiasm became decrees and orders that had to be obeyed. Some still played the situation down, insisting that there was no need to be dramatic, while others joked: “They have chosen a clown playing at being a statesman,” or dismissed him as a demagogue. Freedom of expression was one of the first rights to be axed. Journalists were marked out according to how far they disagreed with the leader, who did not hesitate for a second to reprimand them and punish them in public. No one had ever seen anything like it but nor did anyone lift a finger to make a move against him.

The fear of losing status and perhaps a certain ideological complicity disguised as institutional respect provided the ideal cover for cowardice. However, answerable to none, he went further and in total delusion turned the screw and imposed more restrictions on democracy, more mockery of fundamental rights and, above all, he picked out an adversary, a target upon which he could pile the blame for all the ills of the past and those to come. It was an adequately weak scapegoat for all the bile and resentment that had built up for years in a public that at this point no longer had a say and merely went along with the commands of the caesar. Meanwhile, the grip tightened fatally around the country's throat, pushing it to the precipice of the bloodiest confrontation in recorded history.

Fortunately, this better describes the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler in Germany and the onset of the Second World War than reality today. At least for the moment. Because in the same way that then the reiterated cry by notable figures pointed to the “betrayal of the intellectuals” to divert attention from the danger in the growth of fascism, today we are faced with a similar situation. The president of the European Parliament, Herman van Rompuy, is one of the first to warn about the ideological dangers facing the continent. The prudent Van Rompuy declared himself scandalised with the Brexit vote in Great Britain and the victory of Donald Trump in the United States, because they are two examples of the power of lies, the twisting of reality, of harshness and insults used as a weapon against the adversary.

Democratic alarm

The next elections for countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands are a litmus test to measure the degree of support for the populist phenomenon. Fears were to an extent averted in the recent Dutch election, where the polls foretold a triumph for Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV, in Dutch). In a state traditionally considered one of the most liberal and tolerant on the planet, the xenophobic measures pledged by Wilders, such as hunting down undocumented immigrants, abolishing the social rights of minorities and the suspension of the Schengen Agreement, which ensures the free movement of people within the EU, proved popular. In the end, the centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), led by Mark Rutte, won by a significant margin. Nevertheless, the VVD remained in power after going down a similar road to that of the PVV. In an open letter to the Dutch people, Rutte said: “There is something wrong with our country,” and he warned of the abuse of some freedoms by immigrants. Rutte added that if foreigners could not adapt to society, it would be better for them to return home.

Populist current

The case of the VVD is not unique. The consolidation of extreme right-wing parties in Europe could influence conservative parties as they attempt to prevent voters deserting them. In France, for example, the candidates on the right with the most chance of winning the presidency are trying to cut the distance with the leader of the National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen. And that causes them to include FN elements in their manifestos. The problem with this cutting of the cloth to fit the circumstances is a betrayal of their ideological principles and helps to normalise xenophobia and racism, elements in the 1930s that were the basis for the fascism that brought death and destruction to the continent.

Ignorant or suicidal?

Donald Trump made a call to put “America First”, while Geert Wilders called for a “Holland for the Dutch”. In his presidential campaign, the US president pledged to build a wall on the border with Mexico to prevent the entry into the country of drug dealers and other criminal elements, the “bad men”, as he referred to them. Then last month, the candidate in the Dutch elections campaigned on a promise to expel the “Moroccan scum”, who he blamed for creating insecurity on the streets. One is now head of the most powerful nation on Earth, which was built on immigration, while the other came close to becoming the leader of a country with one of the most liberal traditions in Europe. Yet at heart they are two sides of the same coin, and are representatives of a populism that appears to be spreading thanks to a general rise in hate and intolerance. The fact that we seem not to have learnt anything from recent history makes us ignorant, but above all suicidal.

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